Thinking Out of the Box in Cambridge

Aug 27, 2015

From 18-22 May this year, the United Nations Development Programme in Kosovo partnered with the Cambridge University Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) to provide an intense, one-week Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE) for students in the M.Phil in Public Policy (MPP). The purpose of the exercise was to give the students real-time, hands-on experience in policy analysis.
The students were asked to apply the skills they had gained during the previous year to provide recommendations to address a difficult challenge faced by Kosovo municipalities: ‘How to design appropriate policy tools for managing municipal budgetary demands during the time of financial austerity from the central government?’
Students drew upon background documents and specialised expert knowledge throughout the week. They also had the opportunity to engage directly with Andrew Russell, Resident Representative of UNDP in Kosovo, as well as with Besnik Osmani, Secretary General of the Ministry of Local Government Administration in Kosovo.   
Here are some personal reflections on the event by Mr. Andrew Russell:
“It’s a funny thing to walk the streets of a city where you once lived for a year as a child almost 40 years before. There’s a sense of familiarity but also awe at how even in a city as venerated and ancient as Cambridge things can change a lot over time.
This was what was going through my mind as I entered the sparkling new and state-of-the-art campus building that hosts the University of Cambridge Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) and where I would spend the rest of the day, simply enthralled by the knowledge, enthusiasm, and confidence demonstrated by the students of the M.Phil in Public Policy class of 2015. 
The task was to try to select the group of students that could provide the best overall set of recommendations for in response to the challenge presented to them earlier in the week: how to help municipal leaders in Kosovo to make the most effective use of their highly limited municipal budgets. In other words, how to create space for innovation and transformation (social, economic, environmental, etc.) while balancing many competing interests and demands.
The competition took all morning but it felt like only minutes had passed.  So many interesting and complementary ideas and suggestions. 
Rather than try to capture it all in sentences, here’s a word cloud that shows the diversity of the kinds of topics that were raised by the students:  
It was hard to believe that these students had never been to Kosovo!
After lunch, we were presented with the very tough job of choosing the best of all the presentations. While all of us, both students and evaluators, had been given the chance to rank the presentations in real time, and while we took these inputs in consideration, ultimately the final decision was left to me and the Director of the MPP programme, David Howarth.  
In the end, we went with what we felt was the most practical and easily implementable set of solutions, including a very relevant proposal to improve municipal property tax collection. According to the group, 30% of existing property in Kosovo is unregistered, and only around 40% of residents pay property taxes. The group recommend using GIS satellite information to ensure that all properties are identified, classified, and assigned a unique identification number. This innovation should allow municipalities to increase tax collection in an equitable fashion, based on a broader and more robust data set.
It’s summer now and things are slowing down here and—I imagine—also on the streets of Cambridge.  But I am very much looking forward the brisk days of fall, to the new academic year, to follow-up with our partners at the university and at the municipal level to test out this innovative idea as soon as possible in one or more pilot locations here in Kosovo.”
Students of the Public Policy department at Cambridge were also heavily engaged on the event through social media. Here are some of their thoughts:
Tom Hitchings: “People say you can’t solve a country’s problem in a day, we tried.”
Malavika Raghavan: “E-procurement, PPP, systematic engagement with diaspora, guarantees for SME loans are just some of the ideas for #Kosovo”
Jesse Kancir: “Girls Coding Kosovo: neat initiative with young women engaging in development in Kosovo by challenging gender stereotypes”
Ultimately, the policy simulation exercise was a win-win for both UNDP Kosovo and for the students: the students go on to graduate already having applied their freshly honed skills to address a real-life problem; and UNDP Kosovo benefits from new and innovative ideas and “out-of-the-box” thinking.  We hope that this will become an annual event that can serve as a model for engaging young policy analysts directly in helping to solve some of the toughest development challenges in Kosovo and elsewhere.

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